'Motherless Brooklyn' movie review: An oddly verbose mood piece

Edward Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Motherless Brooklyn.

Edward Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Motherless Brooklyn.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Strong politics and seasoned acting stands at odds with the lack of narrative tension in Edward Norton’s neo-noir adaptation

True to the neo-noir genre, there’s a pervasive sense of cynicism in Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn. Gentrification, arising out of racial discrimination and systemic corruption in 50s New York, forms the backdrop of this adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel. The stylised cinematography and detailed mise-en-scène with vintage cars and top hats, complemented by strong acting, creates an atmosphere that only cinema can, especially the recreation of the jazz scene – untouched by white obscurantism – in Harlem and Brooklyn. The film plays to the strength of visuals but oddly also falls prey to verbal exposition, almost as an antidote to the mood piece.

The film begins and ends with verbal exposition, often bordering towards lectures and narrative garrulousness. A film that has done exceedingly well in recreating the atmosphere of a novel undoes it all with its half-baked characters. Lionel Essrog, the gumshoe with Tourette’s syndrome (although the film never specifies his condition), is a character that’s written in a manner which makes him instantly memorable. With a part of his brain that is “anarchist”, Lionel is lonely, awkward yet oddly heroic. Norton elevates the character further with the right amount of ‘performance’, without pushing the boundaries towards caricature, or worse using the free reign as an actor-director to stage an Oscar-bait moment. But it’s as a writer-director where Norton falters. Although the verbose exposition does give us greater insight into Norton, it stands in loggerheads with the fiddly, and almost inexpressive character.


Edward Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Motherless Brooklyn.

Edward Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Motherless Brooklyn.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement



This contradiction can also be felt in the film’s political messaging. It’s hard to separate the film (especially Alec Baldwin’s bad guy character of Moses Randolph) from contemporary American politics under Donald Trump (who Baldwin satirises on Saturday Night Live), and perhaps the film doesn’t want to differentiate either. The narrative is strongly political while depicting racism, gentrification and class struggle of the African Americans, and the emergence of Lionel, a white man, as the saviour, could also be overlooked. Even though moral ambiguity is part of noir, Motherless Brooklyn takes a moral high-ground and self-righteous stand with its depiction of discrimination, which can be argued to be its weak point. There’s a grey area to that discussion, depending on whether you want to look at the allegiance to the genre or a filmmaker’s liberty to moral posturing. But the urgency in its politics peters out as the film fails to generate a narrative tension that can justify the gravitas of its messaging. There certainly are larger evils and systemic fights being fought, but when it comes to the characters themselves, they remain unremarkable, barring Lionel (of course) and Paul Randolph (Willem Dafoe).

While Norton has a peculiar character to essay, Dafoe has to work with quite an ordinary one, but that’s no deterrent for the masterful actor. With a run-time of almost two-and-a-half hours, the film can also test your patience, should you exit out of the mood of the film. With the inevitable interval in Indian cinema halls, be prepared for a forced exit from the atmosphere and then the self-driven struggle to dive back in. Of course, Norton has not factored that in for the Indian market, like the film’s innate inability to be universal. It is so entrenched in American life and a type of Hollywood cinema, that you either immerse yourself in it, or stand at a distance and conjure up alternate scenarios for Lionel and his amusingly anarchic brain.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 6:33:10 PM |

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